On the seventh anniversary of the great ballot box revolt, George Hoare explains why Brexit’s democratic energy has dissipated and what can be done about it.
George Hoare is Co-host of BungaCast and one of the founders of The Northern Star, a journal of democracy
This article was originally posted on The Northern Star
Seven years after the referendum of 23 June 2016, British politics is essentially zombified. Brexit got ‘done’, with Britain having formally left the European Union over three years ago, but British politics is still much like it was when the UK was a member state of the EU, only much much worse.
A stupendously unimaginative Conservative Party has failed to deliver on its 2019 mandate leading to the prospect of a Labour government after the next General Election determined to keep the UK following Single Market rules even outside the EU. With the energy behind the democratic moment of Brexit now dissipated, most of the democratic energy of Brexit – and the feeling at times that the world of British politics was on the brink of being turned upside down – has been dissipated. With the restoration of the rule of technocracy during the Covid period we may now be faced with a choice at the coming General Election between two equally unappealing versions of Blairism in Sunak and Starmer. What explains why the apparent potential that Brexit had to shake things up has not been realised, leading to still deeper political disillusionment and the feeling of being ‘cheated’?
Part of the explanation lies in the misunderstandings of both sides in the Brexit saga – the Europhilic leftists and liberals, and the Eurosceptic conservatives and populists – over what the EU actually is. For the left and liberal Europhiles, the EU is a cosmopolitan peace project, ‘pooling’ sovereignty and locking in important social protections, without which we would be ravaged by neoliberalism. For conservative Eurosceptics and populists, the EU is a sort of supranational nanny state, an unaccountable, foreign bureaucracy that imposes laws on its hapless member-states, depriving them of their sovereignty.
We argue in our recent book Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit that the true nature of the EU, and British membership of it, was so little grasped because its essence is not to be found in Brussels or Strasbourg but, in the British case, in Westminster. The EU is less an independent political actor, and more the effect of its member states’ inability to act independently: the form taken by the slow demise of their domestic political systems. In short, the EU is the institutionalisation of the decay of democratic representation within its member-states. This means it is not an external imposition, but is better understood as a mechanism developed by national elites through which to rule their societies in a post-democratic era. That is, Europe’s ruling elites have voluntarily surrendered national sovereignty in order to lock in their preferred neoliberal policies against popular opposition, and to avoid having to be responsive to their own domestic constituents.
From this perspective, it is clear that what is often called ‘European integration’ (i.e. the expansion of the EU and the “ever closer union” between its member states) has been a part of the fundamental transformation of political relations in what was once the global heartland of democracy. For many decades, the basic unit of political life was the nation-state, which ruled over a national population. Historically the nation-state was a vertically integrated political unit: its political direction and legitimacy stemmed from the constitutive relationship between political representatives (above) and citizens (below). Political parties, trade unions, churches, and civic associations provided ways for ordinary citizens to exert some control over public life, while political elites drew their legitimacy and policy direction from representing their constituents, offering contending visions of how society should be taken forward.
However, from the 1980s onwards, this vertical relationship has disintegrated. All across Europe, elites have withdrawn into the state and citizens have withdrawn into private life. Electoral participation and membership in political parties and trade unions have collapsed. Political parties have ceased to represent their traditional constituents and to offer competing political visions, becoming mere electoral machines focused on office seeking. As the political scientist Peter Mair put it, a ‘void’ has opened up where the relations of democratic representation used to be.
Having abandoned the representation of their own citizens, Europe’s elites now look less to them for legitimation and policy direction than to their foreign counterparts, mediated through the EU and other international institutions. The basic parameters of social, economic and political life are determined – indeed constitutionalized, put beyond domestic political contestation – in European treaties, while important policy decisions, laws and judicial rulings are increasingly made by bureaucrats and ministers in intergovernmental institutions, and not in national parliaments in response to domestic political contestation.
The vertically integrated nation-state has been transformed into a horizontally integrated member-state, where the driver of law and policy is the horizontal relationships among unrepresentative national elites. While the term ‘member-state’ is obviously related to membership of the European Union, the EU is only the most developed form of this process of state transformation that goes on around the world as national elites increasingly seek authority and legitimation from international sources rather than their own populations.
This perspective on the EU explains why Brexit was neither the catastrophe many predicted nor the panacea that others promised. Instead, it grounds the problems of British politics at home. Prior to the referendum, it was common to speak of the ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU’s structures (although critical talk of this sort, which had earlier been commonplace on the Left strikingly dried up in the run-up to the vote). However, Brexit has shown that the EU’s true democratic deficit is to be found within the member-states. EU rules and regulations are often presented by politicians across the continent as ‘external constraints’, but the reality is not so simple. Instead, elected national leaders meet in the EU’s secretive diplomatic forums, agreeing to outcomes that they then re-present to domestic audiences as ‘Europe’s will’, inescapable and unchallengeable.
As many have pointed out, this is a successful approach to evading accountability and governing through the logic of “There is No Alternative”. Through this process, national leaders appear weaker, but they in fact do so in order to allow themselves better to withstand pressure from political forces at home (including organised labour), and thereby become stronger. Yet, as the Brexit vote showed, this state form may be hard, but it is also hollow: devoid of popular democratic legitimation, it is deeply unpopular, which is why referendums on EU integration over the past two decades have resulted in persistent ballot-box revolts, from France to Ireland, from Greece to the Netherlands, and finally Britain.
This also means that any political responses to the dire current state of British politics have to take into account the deep decay of democratic institutions in Britain. As the travails of the past seven years have demonstrated, there can be no quick-fix solutions to a problem of this depth. Indeed, even the most pro-Brexit of Britain’s political elites scarcely seem to be able to grasp the true nature of the problem – their own failure to represent the British people effectively – let alone succeed in addressing it.
There is, though, a way forward. Understanding the EU as a process of transforming nation-states into member-states puts the concept of national sovereignty, which was central to the Brexit crisis, front and centre. The political void at the heart of the member-state is deeply corrosive of the state’s political authority and, therefore, of its national sovereignty. While EU member-states formally retain their ultimate legal autonomy – as Britain has proved, they can leave the EU – national sovereignty has more to it than that. To make anything of its legal autonomy, a state requires a deep political relationship between the governors and the governed, so that citizens feel real loyalty towards their institutions of self-government: a relationship of trust and therefore of authority. Any weakening of the relationship between the citizenry and the state weakens sovereignty. The state may retain its formal powers, but insofar as the state fails to represent the citizenry, its law-making appears arbitrary and its coercive powers merely authoritarian.
It is this political aspect of sovereignty that was overlooked by both Europhiles and Eurosceptics during the Brexit years, and the notion of national sovereignty remains little understood today. There is a reason for this: national sovereignty is a dangerous term for a Left that despises the nation (and in particular its working-class members), and an impossible one for a Right that may be able to stomach the nation but blanches at giving the population real influence over economic decisions.
The pathologies of the British political class were not solved by Brexit, and the only way for the ghost of the EU to be fully exorcised is through the cultivation of national sovereignty by the revival of political representation. It was the erosion of national sovereignty that led to the decadent process of European integration taking over British politics in the first place. Any other purported solution cannot but reproduce the conditions of the present crisis.